“Don't you have a kiss and hug for your mother, Rath?” Queen Damhsaedroma mocked. She stood fairly still regardless of the slack in her restraints. The blindfold prevented her from seeing the prince directly yet she faced in his direction.
Rath stood his ground still holding his dying pet. The little human hadn't opened his eyes since they left the top-world. His light was fading, the orc prince didn't dare release him; it was the only hope he had.
But the queen had more than enough light to spare.
“Why start now?”
Her head cocked slightly. “Perhaps I'm jealous of that little mangled animal in your arms.”
“He is human.” Rath knew she was well aware of that fact. Her eyes may have been covered and her power bound, but she still possessed the Sight among other talents.
“Same difference.” Damhsaedroma's voice was little more than a derisive whisper. “And now you expect me to save him.”
“I would ask for your help, yes.”
A snide giggle flowed from her. “Are you afraid your arms will tire and he'll fade away without your touch?”
Rath's chest rose in defiance. The queen was well aware of how he had kept his new pet alive for so long. She was, after all, the one who granted him his gift. But the very suggestion that somehow he was weakening bridled him. The snarl on his face was immediate.
“I am more than strong enough for the task,” Rath growled.
With a pouting frown, the queen turned away and lay down on the floor, her hair and gown pooling around her on the stone floor. “Oh, well then. You won't be needing me for anything anymore.” She raised a hand and dismissively waved towards the door he entered from. “Be sure to lock the door on your way out.”
“Then how do I save him?”
“Beg the healers.”
“None of them have that kind of power. You made sure of that.”
She laughed softly as she rolled onto her back. “That's true. Most of the magic does flow through me. It was necessary for my work.”
“No one should wield that kind of power.”
“Thanks to these bindings, my half-breed child, I don't.” Damhsaedroma raised her black-swirled hand as if displaying the manacle surrounding it. “If they weren't forged from dragon scale it wouldn't matter how many runes and workings were inscribed upon it. I was always impressed with them; the raw materials to make them must have been so costly. Many lives must have been lost to create them. I should be flattered.”
“Far more lives were lost by your hand.”
The queen gracefully rolled until she kneeled upon the stone floor. “Is this the part where you appeal to me through some misguided sense of guilt?”
Rath shook his head even if she couldn't see it. “No. You're far too mad for that to actually work.”
“Yet here we are. Still having this circular conversation.”
Rath edged closer to his mother as his pet gasped softly in his arms. No matter what power the mad queen had given him as a child, it would not be enough. Something had to be done.
“I have never asked you for anything before.”
“And you have nothing to offer me. Unless, of course, you'd like to remove these shackles. . .”
“That is beyond me. Only dragon-born magic could shatter those chains and there is none of that in the world since you stole it.”
“Then you have a bit of a quandary, don't you?” Her head lolled back and forth as her fingertips grazed the cold metal surrounding her wrists. The ancient forces coursing through her were barely bottled by her chains. Some still spilled over into the real world, more than what was available to anyone else.
The proof of that power lay on her skin. The once pure porcelain features were partially stained with the evidence of her dark dealings in the past. The black swirls on her skin showed the power that tainted her highborn form, marking her grave indiscretion. It didn't consume her though. Her ancient power balanced out the darker, which kept her lucid instead of her turning into a complete raving lunatic when she acquired it. Few sorcerers could have kept the power from consuming them completely.
Damhsaedroma's aura still shone as glimmering light even if it bathed one in cold. Rath had heard the tales as he matured. The queen's crimes occurred when he was but a small child. Every story told how Damhsaedroma was a healer of unparalleled talent: her life-force spilled out of her so strongly, flowers were said to grow beneath her if she stood still too long. It was her very nature to heal. Was that nature still there? Or had it been consumed in her madness?
“I know you can't see him, but you must be able to feel his injuries.”
“Of course I can. My very nature attunes me to the life blood of this universe. Flowing and streaming, it touches all living things in ways the lower races could never perceive. You would be able to see it as well if your father's orc blood didn't dilute you.”
“Is that how you used to heal? Did you force that energy into a body?”
Damhsaedroma scoffed. “You don't force nature. You coax it to flow stronger and lend its strength. Only a true master can wash away the damage of flesh or cleanse the body of curse or disease. You can't imagine the joy and beauty that comes from guiding such forces. It would bring a tear to your eye.”
“You miss that feeling, don't you, Mother? You miss being so unique among us, to be the only one who knows that rush of giving life outside of creating it.”
“I am always unique among you. That is my lot in this life.”
“But when was the last time you were allowed to lay hands on the sick or wounded?”
The queen grew silent, her ruby lips scowling. Rath took a step closer and watched as her head snapped to his pet's direction as if she could scent his waning light. Her whole body leaned slightly in his direction as if the wounded man were some siren song that only could influence the queen.
“Would you like to feel that again?”
Her delicate hand reached out a tiny bit before she snatched it back. “I will not help your human. Their kind deserve whatever fate comes their way.”
“But you crave it. I can tell how much you want to touch him.” He took another step forward and watched her twitch.
“No, no. The human will die with the rest of his kind.”
“I can bring you more wounded.”
Another step forward and Rath watched the tremor that raced her gentle limbs. Damhsaedroma's lips became a thin line as her body twisted more in his pet's direction. It was shameful to use the queen's weakness so; warriors did not submit to this kind of subterfuge, but it was the only weapon he had. This was one fight he was determined to win at all costs.
“If you do this for me, I will arrange to bring you others beyond the healer's skills.”
Yearning radiated from the bound high elf. The shimmering across the walls grew agitated as she struggled with her appetite. Rath knew it had been centuries since anyone had been brought before the queen and her longing was stronger than he anticipated.
“You will know that flow of light again. You will feel its river inside you.”
The queen's mouth opened, gossamer whispers escaping her lips. “It has been so long. . .”
“And I can help you.” Rath lowered his voice as honey sweet as he knew how. “I can give you a taste again, but you must first save him.”
A soft gasp escaped her as he watched her resistance falter. Tiny feet moved her forward, the links of chain scraping the floor echoing in the corners of the hall. The illumination on the walls grew wilder as her addiction reached out and hunted the damaged human.
“Very well,” she said. Her voice was hoarse with need. “Bring him closer.”
Warily, Rath moved closer still. The queen was still mad and playing with her craving as he had could make her even more dangerous than she already was. He gazed down at the bleeding bundle in his arms. There was no other choice.
“Lay him down,” she said. Her hand reached out slightly as she wet her lips nervously.
The queen was coiled very tightly. Cautious stares followed her every move as Rath knelt down, lowering his pet to the floor, hoping the movement wouldn't be any more harmful than what it already was. Even once he was on the stones, Rath refused to remove his hands.
“Take your hands off him.” Her tone was suddenly haughty and commanding in spite of her tremors.
Rath glared a promise of murder at his mother. He ground his teeth as she grinned, now within reach of his pet. Icy needles pricked along his spine. Could she truly be trusted?
“Your touch protects him. It will also prevent me from reaching his light.”
Somewhere deep inside buried underneath his inner protests, Rath knew Damhsaedroma was correct. With a deep breath, he carefully removed his hands and braced himself for what would come next.
* * * *
Shawn's eyes tore open as pain lanced through every fiber of his body. He had been so serene, so quiet; it was as if all the pain had been shunted away to the darkness. The hands that touched him kept all things from hurting him. Now the hands were gone and someone had flipped the agony switch.
Was it possible to burn from the inside out? White hot and consuming, the fire inside was far too much to bear. Shawn simply didn't have the strength left to fight.
“He's starting to fade. Do something. You promised!”
Shawn recognized the growling voice. Rath? From the Alley? It was so hard to think in a straight line. He managed to look past the searing in his flesh and found two people hovering above him. If he focused on them hard enough, he could push the pain down into something less blinding.
The man was enormous, the kind of big that only happened in fantasies and comic book porn. Blood stains marred the perfect chest and leather vest he wore. Past that came an endless sea of rippling muscle under pale white skin covered in ritual lines of unreadable lettering. His head was hairless with a heavy brow line, a strong, wide nose flattened slightly like a prizefighter and a solid, formidable jaw. Piercing eyes looked down at Shawn with an intensity he'd never known before. He was strangely handsome; it suited him in a porcelain bulldog kind of way.
The woman frightened him. Even with the heavy metal blindfold, she was unnaturally beautiful with her matching alabaster tone. Portions of her face and skin were covered in black swirls that just tarnished what was so good about her. There was something wrong with her, you could feel its presence staining her.
None of that would matter though. Shawn knew he was dying as even his thoughts echoed in his head. It was all right. To stop the torture he would gladly embrace the end.
The queen reached out, her left hand painted in damning black. Even if this was the end, he didn't want her touching him. That hand would surely send him to hell. Shawn arched in spasm even as Rath's hand snapped out and stopped the queen.
“Not the blackened hand, witch! You will only touch him with the pure one or the agreement is off.”
The woman snarled silently as she pulled her hand away from the warrior. Shawn just looked up in confusion as his heartbeat began to slow and his breathing shallowed.
“Do it!” Rath commanded.
She paused a moment before the pure white hand shot out and latched onto Shawn.
It started as a soft tickle that staved off the darkness. Then came the wave, its rush of liquid light that burned and chilled at the same time. Shawn screamed as bones pushed themselves back into position and mended. Wounds washed clean and sealed themselves. It was a glorious kind of agony he'd never known. It filled his sight as the rush rent him asunder and rebuilt his savaged flesh.
And he could feel her as the conduit driving the light. She was in ecstasy. It filled him and made him larger than the world. Would she be able to stop before he overflowed and exploded?
Suddenly she pulled away.
Shawn deflated as the light drained away into nothing but a memory. The damage was repaired but he knew he was far from better. Four limbs felt like leaden weights and he was so tired. She stopped early on purpose.
“He'll live. He'll be weak for some time. He's only human after all.” Her voice drifted euphorically, reminding Shawn of a junkie after scoring a fix.
“You can't do more?”
Her voice was content and lyrical. “You're fortunate I did this much. I did what you asked. Remember the bargain. And don't ever bring him to me for this again. Even when he's well, he'll be very fragile here. It will be up to you to save him from now on. I will not.”
“Thank you, Mother.”
“Get the foul ape away from me before I forget I'm a lady.” The woman stood and shifted away drunk on her touch of light.
Rath's eyes followed her until she was safely away before scooping Shawn into his arms. A gasp of surprise released as Shawn rose in the air weightlessly. He knew he was small in comparison to the large male, but there wasn't the slightest hint of strain. How strong was Rath?
Shawn slumped into the massive embrace, far too weak to protest. A world of stone wrought hallways rushed past him but he didn't have the strength or interest to make more than a casual observation. He'd never known such exhaustion before. They floated through several rises of steps before the sound of a heavy door closing behind them got Shawn's attention. That and the feathered kiss that graced the top of his head.
“She did it. I can't believe she really did it, Puppy,” Rath whispered.
Rath sat down in a chair in front of a small table, arranging Shawn in his lap. He filled a cup from a rustic pitcher and brought the cup to Shawn's lips.
“Drink. Slowly,” Rath urged. Small sips of a rich fruit juice wet Shawn's palette. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so thirsty, so he continued drinking until Rath pulled the cup away.
Clawed fingers brushed through Shawn's hair before balancing him and stripping his fetid clothing from his body. It actually felt better to feel the air on his skin and he was too weary to be modest as his pants and underwear went with his socks and shoes. He was even too empty to care when Rath took the pile of rancid garments and threw them into the roaring fireplace.
Lifted up once again, Shawn felt the rush of air before being set down on a bed of endless proportions. Propped against a pillow the size of a small mattress, Rath pulled rows of warm blankets and furs around the beaten man. The covers all smelled like cedar, just like Rath's chest. Shawn loved the scent. It was very soothing in the warmth as he curled up and drifted into a heady sleep.
* * * *
Rath was finally feeling somewhat settled for the first time since finding his new puppy. He was healed and resting soundly, practically purring into the blankets cocooning the little man. It was worth it.
A small smile curled the edge of his mouth. His new puppy was very comely. Rath was pleasantly surprised when he removed the ruined clothing from him. Puppy was solid with a good form. His chest and stomach were covered in an attractive growth of fur that was surprisingly balanced with the patterned markings that covered both of his arms. There were artisans in the city will similar skills. Perhaps he would have other portions of Puppy's body marked; it suited him.
Puppy needed to be cared for. The queen stopped short to punish Rath for coercing her to lay hands on a human, an unforgivable sin in her eyes. He was still very fragile, but Rath knew he could recover. It would just take time, and he had plenty of that.
Rath ran his hand over his pet's head again watching closely to his breathing. Calm, steady inhales and exhales convinced him that Puppy would not be waking soon. Good. He needed the rest.
A knock at the door drew his attention. He quickly glanced to his pet, who didn't react in the slightest. Rath stood, dropped the satchel from his shoulder to the floor and quickly answered the door to prevent any more unwanted noise. The door swung wide to an older, smaller version of Rath with earthier skin tones on the other side.
“Hello, Father,” Rath said. “I see your meeting is over.”
King Verath nodded gruffly as he stepped into the prince's quarters. No warm smile. No acknowledgment. Just invasion of privacy.
“You met with Queen Damhsaedroma?”
Rath frowned. “Our mission was successful and we returned safe and sound. Thank you for asking.” Knowing this conversation would likely be less than pleasant, Rath closed the door to minimize any spying ears or curious servants.
“I had no doubt you would return unharmed. It hardly seemed relevant.” The king stood in the middle of the large room scanning into every direction. His focus finally ended when he caught sight of the figure sleeping in his bed.
“Is there a reason for your visit?” Rath asked. He stepped past his father until he casually blocked his pet from view. His large hand began unclasping the vest from his expansive chest. The display was nothing if not intimidating. If the king was affected, he made no show of it. His father's eyes, lined with age, rose to meet his son's.
“Approaching the queen is strictly forbidden without my express approval.”
Rath released the bloodstained vest to the floor. “You couldn't be bothered.”
“I was in an important counsel.”
“And my time was critical. It couldn't wait.” Unfastening the clasps, Rath began to peel the soiled leathers from his legs. With little effort, he stood bare before the king, his imposing physique towering over him. Rath knew how his natural state affected others. He was, after all, larger than everyone in all things. Chest thrown out, Rath crossed his arms in visible defiance. He knew this kind of posturing wasn't helpful, but the King just brought the reaction out of him.
Nonplussed, the king stepped around his son and took a closer look at his sleeping pet. “Yes. I can see how important it was. I see it's true. You've brought home a human stray.”
The king pushed closer only to find himself barred by Rath's outstretched arm. His gaze followed his up son's limb until it met his unwavering eyes. No one would come too close to his resting charge. Not even the king. Verath studied Rath a moment and relented, taking one step back.
“I see you spend a great deal of time listening to servants’ gossip,” Rath said.
“Apparently they confide in their king better than his own son.”
“You've never put me before any of them in the past. Why should I offer the same?”
Verath sighed, his tone filled with obvious disappointment. “When will you stop bringing controversy to this court?”
“I am the strongest warrior in our land. No one has the power to harm me and I am loyal to this house. The only shame I bring to this family is due to my parentage, not my actions. I didn't ask to be labelled this half-breed embarrassment for you. The only way for me to not be the subject of whispers and rumors among the races is for you to sequester me in a deep dark hole never to be seen again. Or to have you remove my head from my body.” Rath sneered down at the king. “If you think you can.”
“I'm not here to threaten you, Rath. I just don't understand what you've done here.”
“I brought home a wounded pet and I plan to keep him. No more. No less.”
Verath shook his head. “It had to be a human. There will be so much talk.”
“When is there not?”
The king's shoulders shifted subtly with a companion exhale. He looked back and forth between his son and his new pet with some disapproval, but Rath knew he would not object in the end. The king spent far too much effort in not interacting with his son unless it was very important. This was certainly not an event that was critical to the realm.
“So you were successful. You brought home the relic?”
“Yes. Our sources were right. The humans had unearthed an elven dagger fashioned from a dragon's tooth. It was in the possession of a human collector.”
“Did you have any difficulty acquiring it?”
“No. The building was unoccupied that evening.”
Verath's eyebrow raised and his shoulders rolled forward. “And how during all of this did you find your new pet?”
“We found him outside of the building in a skirmish with three others. He would have done well, I believe, but they ambushed him.”
“So you involved yourself.”
“That does explain about the three humans I heard Sethus brought to the kitchen.”
“I already warned him they were not to be in our food.”
“Thank you. It's been a millennium since I'd tasted their kind and I doubt they've improved over the age.” Verath's head shook quickly as if to rid himself of the memory.
“I was impressed with the courage he displayed when he challenged them. Their victory was underhanded and I felt it was wrong to simply leave him to die, so I saved him.”
Verath's view turned back to the helpless figure in Rath's bed. He stared in a long moment of tense silence before speaking. “I can't believe there's one of them in my keep. When he's well, be sure to bring him to me. I'd like to examine him more closely. For all of our safety.”
Rath nodded. “When he's well enough, I'll consider it.”
Verath's chest rose in authority before he bowed his head simply in acknowledgement to Rath. The king then strode past the prince and left the room leaving him standing naked and alone in the light of the fireplace. The grind and lock of the door closing was very harsh in its finality.
A small sadness filled his chest as it always did when his father walked away. What he wouldn't give to hear his father approve of him or his accomplishments. Or that he would simply give some kind of familiar parental greeting or goodbye when they met. With his mother's imprisonment at any early age, one would hope Verath would have clung tighter to what was left of his family. Sadly, that was many centuries ago and had yet to change. An estranged father, a mother in chains and no mate in sight, Rath knew the bitter tang of loneliness better than most. Mixed parentage was not looked upon well in the lands and far fewer would consider a half-breed to be a suitable mate.
But now it didn't matter. Rath had a puppy to care for that needed him more than the rest of them. He looked forward to it. That was more important than his father's evasive contacts. With a surprising grace that belied his massive bulk, Rath slid into the bed, burrowed into the dense blankets and wrapped himself into a shelter for his sleeping pet; the stroke of his hand bringing a peaceful glow to the new puppy.
“Don't worry, Puppy. I will take good care of you.”
It took very little time before the prince followed his pet into the land of dreams.